I first knew that I had become a real New Yorker when my adopted state became a national laughingstock thanks to the 2010 election. In case you've forgotten, among the colorful candidates running to become New York's governor that year, self-professed Madam Kristin Davis, whose primary claim to fame was supplying prostitutes to a previous New York Governor. But she was far from the most colorful. That title was won by a landslide by Jimmy McMillan, who turned "The Rent is Too Damn High" into the most memorable campaign message of the midterm election cycle -- and did so while rocking a handlebar mustache-goatee combo.
While the rest of the nation laughed at the array of wackiness vying to become our state's Chief Executive one observer summarized my own feelings best. "Maybe I've lived in New York too long but I don't really find the people running that odd. I mean no odder than who we see on the subway everyday."
Some felt that the inclusion of such "wacky" candidates diminished the office and the process, turning both into some kind of joke. But here's a question for you, were Kristin Davis and Jimmy McMillan any less serious and viable contenders for Governor than, say, Newt Gingrich is for president? Critics accused candidates like Davis and McMillan, and others of running for office for the sole purpose of generating publicity to advance their careers outside of politics -- as if better known candidates don't do the exact same thing.
Hot on the heels of his campaign stop in the highly competitive GOP primary locale of Greece back in June, Newt Gingrich recently took his campaign to another make or break primary state. Not New Hampshire or Iowa but Hawaii. (Coincidentally the trip was scheduled around the time of his wedding anniversary, but again I'm sure that's just a coincidence.) At this point no one -- including Newt Gingrich himself -- actually believes the man wants to be president, including his staff, most of whom quit after his Greek campaign swing. (Apparently there weren't as many eligible American voters and donors in the Mediterranean as he must have thought.) It's obvious even to casual observers by now that Gingrich is running for the same reason that a lot of other candidates have run for president and other offices before him: because he doesn't really have anything better to do. But he realizes that one way to line up something better to do is to ride the presidential gravy train as long as possible, milking the free publicity for all it's worth.
Gingrich, of course, is not alone, joined this election cycle by fellow vanity candidates Rick Santorum, Ron Paul and a sprinkling of others. (Click here to see some of the most memorable examples of Candidates who have repeatedly run for offices they never won.) Every election (and each party) is filled with these sorts of candidates; those who invest their time, resources (and other people's resources) in running for offices they know they cannot win and often do not have a real desire to. Many such candidates are repeat offenders running to do nothing more than to increase their visibility and subsequently their fees on the political speaking circuit and to maybe, if they're really lucky, land a high-profile, high paying TV gig providing analysis of the race they were once a part of.
Obviously part of the beauty of living in a democracy is having real choice when you walk into the voting booth, not to mention the choice to run for office yourself, no matter who you are, what color you are, or what your last name is. But there is an argument to be made that when candidates run solely for the sake of entertainment (their own entertainment or ours) they distract us from discussing the real issues that matter, with the candidates that will ultimately matter. How much airtime, for instance, has recently been devoted to Newt Gingrich's Tiffany's bill (I'm guilty on this one myself) or to the fact that Herman Cain inadvertently quoted a Donna Summer song (not guilty of covering that one, I'm proud to say.)
At their best, these so-called fringe candidates can play a valuable role in pressing their party on a singular issue that would otherwise go largely ignored. In those rare instances in which a candidate is genuinely passionate about advancing a clear agenda on a specific issue, instead of advancing their own agenda, they have an opportunity to make a real difference. (Ironically, this year GOP candidate Fred Karger, who supports gay marriage wanted to play such a role on this issue in the GOP debates, but despite polling as well as some of the other lower tier candidates like Gingrich, Karger has been repeatedly shut out and ignored.)
Now far be it from me to knock somebody's hustle, as the saying goes. But with the Snookies and Kardashians of the world expanding into every single aspect of our lives, is it too much to ask that the race for the nation's highest office be one of the few things that remains somewhat serious and something that we treat as more than an audition for a reality show?
But good news for those of you who enjoy reality TV (and those of you who laughed at we New Yorkers last year.) Jimmy "The Rent is Too Damn High" McMillan is also running for president -- as a Republican. Maybe he and Gingrich can launch a show together. Perhaps "The Simple Life: Political Edition."
Keli Goff is the author of The GQ Candidate and a Contributing Editor for TheLoop21.com where this post originally appeared.
Follow Keli Goff on Twitter: www.twitter.com/keligoff